Thursday, February 18, 2016

Experimenter: Obedience and Ethics

Experimenter is a playful biography of Stanley Milgram, a professor of socio-psychology in mid-20th-century New York.  It is an experiment, aiming toward a point, just as if it had been directed by Milgram himself.  It goes back and forth between biography and ideas, constantly rephrasing the truths that made up the foundation of Milgram's life.

Stanley Milgram is a cold fish. He speaks with a monotone, views crowds of people as experiments, and is willing to deceive in order to discover truth.  Sure, he has a wry sense of humor and a quirky way of looking at the world, but still, he seems almost alien.

That's the way many people feel under the gaze of an INTJ (a personality type, sometimes called "the scientist").  A person whose inner thoughts drive her to improve the world, but in strange ways that might seem manipulative or rebellious.  Yet people regard her as distant, removed from everyday life.

I have personally experienced this.  I'm an INTJ, too.  We make up less than two percent of the population, and for many people that's all for the good.  We don't follow rules very well.  But we figure things out in unique ways.

For myself, I have set my sights on the "homeless problem" (not that any people are a problem).  And so I am constantly battling city code so that my homeless friends might have places to sleep, and opportunities to survive and thrive.  I created a work program and a three-day homeless camp, and gave the homeless people jobs with housing and formed networks of churches to open their doors to allow the homeless in.  For my unique ways of working with the poorest in our society, I've been told that I cause homelessness and that I am to blame for the "homeless problem" in my community.

You gotta shrug that stuff off.  It's gunna happen.

Professor Milgram understands this.  He was trying to understand the basis of how a community can participate in evil, such as many nations participated in the destruction of the Jews under Nazi rule.  So he created a famous experiment which shows how deeply we hold obedience to authority.  He had people apply (fictional) electric shocks to a subject when he failed a question on a test when an authority took the responsibility for the results.  Authority, he discovered, erases personal responsibility, and allows one to participate in acts that they know are evil.  They give one allowance to ignore and to even support the worst actions.

And for this he discovery he was persecuted.  Of course, he was a cold fish, a person many people wouldn't like.  Removed, like the authorities he pulled the rug out from under.

And can truth be discovered through deception?  Can authority be undermined by imposing authority?

But I think Milgram wasn't trying to undermine authority.  He is trying to give a basis for acting morally, no matter what the circumstances.  To say that there is a time to do what is right, to speak up for what is right no matter who is telling us otherwise.

Like when we see someone being harassed and moved on by the police in the middle of winter.
Like when churches are told they can't open their doors to let people in from the cold overnight.
Like when the homeless are told to leave and go somewhere else-- anywhere else--
and again
and again
and again.

Sometimes we just have to do what is right, no matter what anyone else says. 

No comments:

Post a Comment